Thoughts On Transit Safety In Portland

Earlier today, TriMet announced their annual satisfaction survey saw their approval rating increase. This is a result I find very interesting, as my approval of TriMet this year is down.

Yes, I actually disapprove of a transit agency. While I would still recommend public transport, doing so in Portland specifically comes with a lot of strings attached – far more than anywhere else.

In just under four years of living here, I’ve seen significantly more safety issues here than anywhere else. While I may have had to call emergency services for the first time – ever – while I was in Melbourne, in the five years I lived in Philly, I never had a single issue on public transport.

Perhaps this was thanks to Philly’s very strong transit police presence or the fact it did not rely on what is known as the “POP” system, or Proof of Payment. With the exception of regional rail and busses, when I lived in Philly, you had to go through a physical barrier to gain access to a station.

On the other hand, Melbourne did use the POP system on trams and suburban rail platforms – but it was very, very heavily enforced. I was fine with that, even if I was always the odd one out during a fare check. I guess it wasn’t too common to encounter an American with a monthly pass and a substantial travel history on their Myki.

Here in Portland, we also rely on the POP system, and this is by far my biggest complaint about public transport here. There is virtually no enforcement of fare here. Yes, fare checks happen, but they are seldom. Bus operators are actually prohibited from enforcing fare on busses because TriMet has an operator assault problem – bad enough that barriers are now standard on all new busses, and the entire fleet is being retrofitted with them. Literally anyone can just walk right onto a MAX or Portland Streetcar and the likelihood they will be asked for their fare is less than 10%.

According to TriMet’s proposed 2020 budget, there are only twelve fare inspectors for the entire system. The number of Transit Police is not disclosed. Portland Streetcar has only two fare inspectors. For a system that delivers literally thousands of trips every day, this is unacceptable. While TriMet does have private security from G4S, they are not authorized to enforce fares and other TriMet code and to be honest, the majority of them do not set a good example to other passengers. I had one give me snide remarks once for waiting for the signal to cross the MAX tracks and road while they crossed on a Do Not Walk signal. Needless to say, that was promptly reported to TriMet.

In the years that I’ve lived here in Portland, TriMet’s safety record has been horrendous. I hope no one will ever forget the horrific event that took place at Hollywood Transit Center in 2017. That was so bad, it made international news and has its own Wikipedia article. In February, someone dumb enough to walk in front of an oncoming train actually won a lawsuit against TriMet, in part because the jury found crossing safety devices to be inadequate – and that is the only part of the findings I agree with.

On a personal level, I’ve been harassed on Streetcar by intoxicated passengers, thankfully all of whom were ejected from the train not long after by the operator. I’ve also been assaulted on a TriMet platform. Yes, you read that correctly. It became the second time I’ve had to call police here in Portland. The first time was for one throwing a hatchet around at a bus stop and then boarding a bus with it. I wasn’t assaulted on a platform in a “bad area” either. It was in my home district of South Waterfront, in broad daylight, and in the middle of the morning rush hour.

That said, I would consider Portland Streetcar to be safer than TriMet, but it has room for improvement as well. I very much look forward to security cameras for the first time on the new fleet from Brookville and hope funding can be acquired to equip the existing fleet with them as well soon.

TriMet, however, is the first – and only – transit agency I have to give an unsafe rating to. Not nearly enough is being done to improve and increase security across the entire system. Without substantially increased enforcement, the POP system is not one that will be sustainable for TriMet in the future. I was not at all surprised when Portland was not listed in the top 25 safest cities in the state.

Now does this mean I plan to stop riding TriMet? No, but it does mean it is not something that I would immediately recommend to someone. Streetcar, on the other hand, still receives a safe and recommend rating from me.

If I did have regular access to a car outside of car sharing with ReachNow, I would end my ridership of TriMet until TriMet made significant improvements in security. Their first lifetime exclusion is a step in the right direction, but without actual security and code enforcement, it is little more than a PR move.

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